Port Elizabeth of Yore: A  Burning Need for a Fire Brigade

Self-absorbed and engaged with their entrepreneurial spirit with a rampant desire to progress, the residents of Port Elizabeth in the first half century of the 1800s ignored the reality that they resided in a semi-dystopian world. Due to the lack of a local authority, the town lacked any form of central body to control its development. To do so would imply the imposition of rules and regulations. But conversely, it would enforce standards. Irrational behaviour conforms with the concept known as  – The Tragedy of the Commons. Examples abound. Crooked streets, different plot sizes hindering throughfares, vacant land becoming dump sites, dumping sewerage on the beaches and many more. The town was a veritable patchwork of order and disorder, utopia and dystopia.

It was only by awakening the awareness of the town’s residents via his newspaper, The EP Herald, that John Paterson sensitized the citizenry to the need for a local authority. Once they had established a Town Council, only then came the hard part, the implementation. Amongst the myriad of issues was the need to create a Fire Brigade. Budget constraints would shackle many initiatives on the path to create a professional Fire Department

Follow the town as it claws its way from makeshift equipment and volunteer firemen to a professional force in 1917. In a second blog on the Fire Brigade, I will deal with the later years post 1917

 Main picture: St Mary’s Church after its destruction by a fire on 9 March 1895

Earliest recorded fire in the town
Over the years many veld fires had been reported but the maxim “out of sight and out of mind”  applied. The dangers or even the possibility of a fire in the urban area were discounted by the residents. It was only a fire in the town dating to 1838 when an intruder set fire to a shop in Main Street, that the issue of fires received the attention of the residents.

Commercial Hall

Finally, it was the report of a disastrous conflagration in 1858, which raised an outcry from the residents regarding the lack of fire engines which galvanised the Town Council to establish a Fire Brigade in the town.

Tentative first step
On the 20 May 1858, at a public meeting held in the Court House, which had been operating from the Commercial Hall, the residents had to consider the best means of providing fire engines and a proper supply of water for use in case of fires. To execute this mandate, a committee was formed to organise a fire brigade and collect the necessary means and materials.

Redgrave reported that during this meeting, the debates were brought to a sudden standstill by the ringing of the Market bell in the Square and strident cries of “Fire! Fire!!” Pushing aside their chairs in their frantic endeavour to escape, everybody then rushed to the exits out of the Commercial Hall into Market Square. Thoughts of doom raced. Deadly outcomes envisaged. Their wild thoughts of people trapped or caught in the fire were deflated when the imminent danger was found to only be somebody’s chimney that had caught alight. After the excitement had subsided, nobody was willing to return to the meeting, so they adjourned it and made their way home in the pitch dark.

Basement as fire station
During April 1859, Robert Archibald was commissioned to form a fire brigade. One month later during May, the highly anticipated arrival of the sailing vessel Skimmer of the Seas with two new fire engines with all the necessary appliances on board, occurred. These units required twenty-eight men each to handle, and it was some time before a trial test took place.

The Town Hall posing with its impressive tower and Town Clock. Until 1904, the Town Hall was utilised as a Fire Station

These units, the so-called ‘manuals’,  were manufactured by Shand Mason in England. They were well-regarded having a favourable reputation and hence very popular at the time. Working in relays, some 28 men were required to operate the pumping handles. [Note: Some sources claim that it required 24 men to operate whereas other state that it was 28]

Without an adequate budget and with the unit consisting of one member, Archibald himself, no finances were committed to constructing or erecting a Fire Station. In desperation, the basement of the Town Hall was allocated to serve as the town’s first fire station.

Local insurance companies had sponsored the purchase of these engines and handed them over to the Board of Municipal Commissioners which established a Volunteer Fire Brigade under the control of the Town Engineer, on the 20 July 1859 with the basement of the Town Hall serving as the Fire Station.

Unpaid and untrained volunteers
After the delivery of the firefighting equipment, the Fire Brigade required manning to become operational. After receiving the equipment gratis from the Insurance Companies and probably without a pecuniary budget for the fire-fighting staff, the council’s solution regarding staffing  was reliant on the goodwill of the residents to become merely unpaid and untrained volunteers. This became extremely problematical as most of the volunteers were in fulltime employment and their employers were reluctant to have staff absent whenever there was a fire emergency.

Redgrave noted the negative ramifications as follows: “As a consequence they could seldom be mustered when required, and so for a while the Artillery Corps offered to man the engines, but little notice was taken of their kind offer. At the outbreak of the first fire, which gave an opportunity to use the new engines, there was a long delay owing to the absence of many volunteers and when the engines at last arrived on the scene of the blaze, only two people could be found who knew how to work them, not knowing whether it stood on its head or its heels, hence half-an-hour had elapsed before the engine was got going. And even later, when the town boasted its completed imposing Town Hall, the antiquated fire engines were parked in its basement, and at the call of the alarm bell, the nearest pair of cab horses had to be inspanned, volunteers found, and away clattered the engines with much ringing of bells, manned by important-looking crews, often arriving when the fire was burnt out.

Competition between Garrison and Town firemen
In his book, Port Elizabeth of Bygone Days, Redgrave recounts the absurd situation when the Garrison firemen using basic equipment were able to extinguish a fire in Union Street before the Municipal fire team even arrived, much to their chagrin.

About one o’clock one morning the Market bell was rung on the Square, giving the alarm of a fire outside the wool-pressing store of Mr. Christie in Union Street, where a pile of some seventy-eight bales had been left covered over with a sailcloth. The latter had no doubt been ignited by some of those loose characters, who infested these localities, lighting their pipes, there being as yet no night police to round them up. The glare of the burning sail was first seen at ten minutes to one by one of the Port Office crew on duly. He immediately gave the alarm by arousing the parties in the neighbourhood and pulling the Market bell. In about five minutes the military engine under the Garrison Sergeant-Major was at work on the spot. From the nature of the material, the flames did not extend beyond the baling of the wool, and the fire was soon extinguished and did not reach the adjoining buildings. The town engines arrived on the scene some twenty minutes later, but their belated services were not required. In due course a full-time Fire Brigade, financed by the Town Municipality, was established with a com­petent staff of men who exercised regularly once a month and who arrived promptly upon the scene of any conflagration that occurred in the town.”

Market bell
In the early years when required, the Brigade was summoned by the ringing of the market bell. As the town grew in size, church bells were also used to sound the alarm.

Flammable materials
One of the ramifications of having a Town Council, is that they will promulgate rules and regulations. Amongst the earliest of such regulations related to flammable materials. Shortly before the establishment of the Town Council in 1861, the Municipal Commissioners decided to prohibit the erection of ‘…. Thatch or reed-roofed buildings‘ within a quarter mile of Main Street or thoroughfares of the municipality without special permission of the Council’s Regulations dealing with the usage, storage and transportation of any “fireworks, inflammable or explosive material whatever” were also introduced.

Cleghorn’s Building burnt down on 06 May 1896

Killed on duty
On the 6th May 1896, James Mitchell Maxwell became the first Port Elizabeth fireman to lose his life whilst extinguishing a fire in the town. He was struck and killed by a falling coping stone at the premises of Messrs. Cleghorn and Harris which stood on the corner of Whites Road and Main Street. Today a small garden occupies the site and James Maxwell’s death has been commemorated by a stone tablet which was erected on the site by the Port Elizabeth Fire and Emergency Services Department during its 125th Anniversary Celebrations.

Memorial to Fireman John Maxwell who died attempting to extinguish the burning Cleghorns Building

A pyromaniac at large
Every community has its “nutjobs”. In Port Elizabeth’s case it was Miss Frances Livingstone Johnston who arrived by ship from Australia at the end of 1896. Her proclivity was a hatred for church altars. This malady or affliction manifested itself in the form of pyromania. At least three attempts at arson can be attributed to her actions. On the night of the 30th March and 1st April 1897, Frances successfully reduced the Holy Trinity Church in Havelock Street to ashes.

Holy Trinity after the fire

St Augustine’s had a narrow escape when a suspicious clergyman found her in a compromising position inside the church. On confronting her, she made a swift exit. As if that was insufficient, her affliction drove her to St. Mary’s. It was some alert workmen busy on the top storey who noticed smoke issuing from the building and rushed down to find the new altar ablaze but succeeded in getting the fire under control. The next morning, Miss Frances Livingstone Johnson, the perpetrator of these crimes, was caught by detectives again in St. Mary’s, seeking a fresh point of attack to incinerate the Church.

Fire Brigade Practice – Herald article from 4 June 1904

If her obsession had not been so overwhelming and she had restricted her hatred to one church, she would have escaped prosecution. On the 7th April. Miss Frances Livingstone Johnston was charged with arson for burning down Trinity Church in the early hours of 1 April and attempting to set fire to St Mary’s in the afternoon.

In due course she was sent to the asylum on Robben Island where she nearly suc­ceeded in burning down the entire Government buildings there whilst the officials were giving an evening party.

Military Road fire station
In 1904, a wood and iron fire station was erected in Military Road to replace the City Hall basement as fire station and later that year on the 2 November 1904 the Mayor opened the new premises of the Fire Brigade. The wood-and-iron building included an engine house, stabling for two horses and a bedroom for men on duty. It also housed the new Shand Mason pair-horsed hose cart. This piece of equipment continued in use after a munici­pal Fire Department was created in 1917 and the first motorised fire engine was acquired.

Officers and men of the Port Elizabeth Fire Brigade at the opening of the Military Road Fire Station in 1905. The officer standing in front of the horses is Mr. JG Anderson who served in a voluntary capacity from 1899 to 916. The horse-drawn fire engine was  manufactured by Messrs Shand Mason of England.

Report of the new Fire Station in the papers

The major equipment at that time consisted of horse drawn fire tenders to which a horse drawn ambulance was later added. In addition, portable equipment was stationed at various strategic points throughout the town. During December 1923 a Studebaker motor ambulance was taken into use and garaged in Military Road.

New uniforms and water pressure for lofty buildings

Short Historical Notes on the Port Elizabeth Fire and Emergency Services Department by D.C. Sparks[Looking Back, Vol 29, No. 2, September 1990
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

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